The True Taste

August 17, 2013 § Leave a comment


Crappy photo, incredible wine!

My latest column in the Portland Press Herald sprung from a New Yorker article on Bill Buford and Daniel Boulud, where they construct this impossible old-school dish, the chartreuse, and you think it can’t be worth it — or any good — until the usually taciturn Boulud exclaims that the dish is “le vrai goût de la France”.

That’s what I think of the wines of André Brunel. His “ordinary” Côtes du Rhône, a scant $13 retail, is the “true taste of France”. It has that inimitable French quality that makes you feel as you’re drinking it that you never want to drink anything else.

It’s bottled unfiltered, from old-vines Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah fermented in concrete tanks. The wine is a conversation among every element of the plant cycle: soil, roots, branches, leaves, fruit. It’s the whole picture, with tannins integrated, both toothsome and silken.

Brunel’s Chàteauneuf-du-Pâpe takes that conversation deeper, deeper, deeper. Yes, it costs a whole helluva lot more. It should. But the CdR is where you start. And I love the white, too, the Domaine de la Becassonne. It’s not flabby and stupid, like most southern Rhône whites. It tastes more like an Alsatian Pinot Blanc to me, and that’s a very good thing.

The article is worth reading, in my opinion, because in an interview with me Brunel talked fascinatingly about what is happening in this historic region because of global climate change. How do you maintain the “traditions of the ancients”, in Brunel’s words, in a world whose very chemistry is changing? Who’s got a more compelling question than that?

Wine quiver. Five non-ordinary, non-boring wines for everyday drinking.

September 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Writers love to wax, and wine writers are some of the worst. But it’s mostly onanism. Much as I want my writing to be about the poetry, readers want it to be about the wine: Tell me what to buy and drink, dammit! That’s probably why last week’s wine column was one I heard a lot about, from customers and readers. No fancy stuff, just five wines under $15 that you wouldn’t ordinarily pick up:  labels are weird, varietals aren’t named, the wines aren’t just “fresh, dry white” or “luscious, fruit-forward red”.

Picpoul, an uncategorizably nutty/floral southwest-France white from Grenache and Macabeu, an unoaked Italian Chardonnay that tastes like a Vouvray, a great Piemonte red blend, and a Ventoux table red oozing Provençe. All under $15!

Ride ’em Cowboy: a Rhône Ranger winemaker Euros can love

April 20, 2012 § 2 Comments

Paso Robles is known for producing big, bruising wines. And there’s not really a way around the climate and terrain that produce ’em. Still, there are ways to be sane, and to infuse these echt-American wines with a Europhilic sense of place and balance. Vines on the Marycrest‘s Victor Abascal is one of the good guys, and here’s where you can read why.

Languedoc wine: NOT the Yellow Tail of France

January 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

We all want to find cool stuff no one’s ever heard of, but how do you find the cool stuff that’s hiding in plain view? France’s Languedoc helps answer that question. Source of so much mass-produced crapola, it also contains thrilling wine appellations that are home to small-scale, dedicated winemakers who are artisanal exceptions to the Languedoc-is-bulk-wine rule. My Portland Press Herald column this week takes the plunge.

Wine = reality = truth ≠ language

July 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

My latest column in the Portland Press Herald acknowledges the ultimate futility of (wine) writing, while simultaneously rescuing it from ignominy all the same. Despite, with qualification, what Eric Asimov says, there actually are good reasons to try to adhere language to wine, even though it often fails so miserably and sounds ridiculous. Just because a wine has “poopy elements” doesn’t mean it tastes like poop. And it sure doesn’t mean you won’t love the wine.

Red wines for barbecues? Depends what you’re cooking

June 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

My latest column gets at that crowd-pleasing topic, “wines for the grill”. Not any Zinfandel will do, unless you’re cooking burgers or wet-sauced ribs. For the rest of us, grilling has become so much more varied than that, so you need wines capable of the variety. Lighter, better balance of minerality and fruit, etc. This column goes at it from a European side of things (Côtes-du-Rhône, Rioja, Costières-de-Nimes), next time I’ll stay domestic.

The Classic Southern Rhône Wines of Perrin & Fils

March 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Perrin wines are rather unassuming at first glance. Not flashy. But they’re often brilliant, sometimes mind-rocking, always interesting. You owe it to the classic, gracious, stately side of yourself to drink these wines.

From Portland Press Herald, March 16, 2011

We tend to seek out the new in whatever realms we drift in, partly because it’s exciting and partly for ego upgrade. Be it pop stars, gadgets, politics or wine-and-food, we restless postmoderns like our hunts. But excitement for excitement’s sake is simply distraction, and as for the delusion that the self is ennobled by striving, Google Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Today I’ll raise a flag for intimacy with the not-so-new.

Where else can one’s mind go when considering (and tasting) the wines of the Perrin family? The Perrins have been making wine in the France’s Southern Rhône since 1909, so well and so consistently that the familiar labels may fail to set your heart aflutter as it peruses your local shop or wine list. Comes a time, though, when your heart matures, and gains the ability to flutter at ever subtler stimuli. Perrin & Fils wines are for such subtle hearts, and for drinkers who are good with elegance, patience, harmony and class. That they bear little blast of trendiness might make them seem less relevant to you, but in fact it makes them more so.

The Southern Rhône is profoundly rural France, rustically Provençal in character though not in a touristy way (very windy, spotty wi-fi). In the Northern Rhône, the red wines come from Syrah alone; in the south there are 13 possible varietals blended according to demands of terroir and winemaker preference, and the best wines reflect that freewheeling provenance. But only disciplined winemakers are going to be able to wrest the graceful soul from such hodgepodgey origins.

Perrin wines express that soul, while staying true to the olive-oil/garlic/wild-herbs personality of the region. Most are brisk, spicy, and rocky, reminiscent of open fires and tough old clothes wind-blown ragged and caked in dust. Perrin holds some of the oldest vineyards in France, which have hosted vines brought from the Phoenicians and Greeks. It’s the real deal.

And it comes across in a stunning variety of wines, starting with the Vielle Ferme line, through the Perrin Reserves and Crus, all the way up to Châteauneuf-du-Pape standard-bearer Château de Beaucastel. The range itself is part of what’s so interesting, because it invites you into a relationship with the family and a certain outlook.  (The winemakers still have Perrin for a surname, into the fifth generation now coming up).

Maybe that’s what we’re truly seeking when we hunt for “the new”: a relationship with something real, somewhere real, real people. We find this relationship so rarely that we look and look again, restlessly; with the Perrins you can rest.

You’ve probably seen the Vielle Ferme 2009 ($8, or $13 for the 1.5L size) the last time you stopped at a moderately well-stocked convenience store, which is part of what’s remarkable about it. The Perrins don’t own the Luberon properties that produce these wines, but manage the vineyards. The white surprised me most, because I’d remembered it as excessively fruity. The 2009 was somewhat floral but very clean (it sees no oak), flinty and green-appley, above all alive. The red (same price) is almost maddeningly easy. Something naughty made me want to find flaws but there aren’t any; it’s a perfectly balanced blend of half Grenache and the rest Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault, just perfect for don’t-think-about-it occasions.

Perrin Réserve Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge 2009 ($12) is the best intro to red Côtes-du-Rhône I can think of, pure and straightforward. It hits all the right notes — licorice, spearmint, twigs, moderate spice — with none of the overbearing twang that sometimes plagues CdR. The Côtes-du-Rhône Villages 2009 ($14) is a huge step up, due to different vineyards that permit more Syrah. My notes from a few weeks ago have a lot of exclamation marks, but I just remember how prime the fruit is, like cherries or a red plum in July: that succulent, that oozing, that vital, that smooth.

For me the best values, though, are two of the Perrin Crus. The crus are the myriad vineyard-specific wines that express the deepest soul of the Southern Rhône, and Pierre Perrin is a master at finding and developing the sites. The Cairanne 2007 ($23) is extraordinary, from a site near Gigondas: packed with spice, soft and voluptuously feminine, figgy and deep. 2007 Rhône has already been called a vintage for the ages, and while the Cairanne is singing right now, buy a few bottles because in just 2-4 years it’ll be singing from even deeper down. The Vinsobres 2006 ($20), from the northernmost Southern Rhône village, is more upright, with liqueur-y body, mocha and teriyaki, robust.

The Réserve Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc 2009 ($10) is quite round while remaining fresh and almost evanescent; I liked it fine, though it was only when I tasted Perrin whites in the >$30 range (Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc Roussanne Vielles Vignes 2007, $165, call my name!) that I really found the same strength of character the reds offer up so effortlessly.

I haven’t even touched on the Beaucastel wines, frankly because they cost a good deal of money and are made for cellaring which most of you don’t do. If you’re wealthier and more patient than I assume, then puh-leeze: buy the Coudoulet de Beaucastel Côtes-du-Rhône 2008 ($31), a savory, opulent, gamey wine draped in wet wool, smoke, jus and currant. It’s almost as intricate and Johnny-Cash-like as the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 ($96, a bottle of squid ink and truffles you should drink when your newborn finishes med school), but more open to friendship.

Monastrell, Mourvèdre; Monastrell, Mourvèdre — let’s call the whole thing off

February 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Another offshoot of my this week (see below) was my re-acquaintance with broccoli rabe. No, it’s not local this time of year (and damn hard to find here in Maine even in season; why is that?). But I made a simple lentil dish (French lentils, and loads of chopped garlic, fresh fennel, fresh sage, rosemary, parsley and mint, plus multiple grindings of black pepper), then blasted the wok for the classic combo of broccoli rabe, garlic and hot red pepper flakes, finished with lemon juice.

The wine was the Atope Monastrell 2008, a bargain of a wine ($13) for what it offers: blueberry at first, then minty bitterness, moderate earthiness, and a shocking kind of freshness that leads naturally to hearty greens. The lentils had fun with the wine’s earth, but it was that green quality — kind of like a balanced Cabernet Franc from the Loire — that took center stage, picking up the herbs of the lentils and bowing in deference to the verdant, bracing tang of the broccoli rabe.

Also-known-as-es: Broccoli rabe is sometimes called “rapini”. And Monastrell is the same grape as what the French call Mourvèdre, that southern-Rhône powerhouse that endows Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe with its spine and can be thrilling as a single-varietal wine in Bandol.


True Gifts are all Shared: Syrah, Neyers and not; Riedel not Rabbit

December 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

From Portland Press Herald, December 22, 2010

Gifts that actually keep on giving

New federal laws state that any end-of-year newspaper column must either be a best-of list, offer gift suggestions, or discuss parties. Because I’m constantly afraid the black helicopters are going to swoop down and extraordinary-rendition my poor, inebriated butt to an abandoned Australian vineyard, I will obey.

Parties: Attend them. We’ll talk about bubbly wine next year, though. Until Dec. 31 you’re going to bring any old sparkling wine to parties and you’re not going to pay attention to the quality — or to the fact that many sparkling wines make the most incredible food wines. You already know how to buy a get-happy-and-a-little-drunk sparkling wine; let’s talk in January when you’re sober.

OK, on to best-of lists and gift suggestions. As most of you know, I’m navel-gazing to the point of egotism, so I’m going to talk about a few of the best wine-related gifts I have received this year, hoping they’re instructive for you.

I finally got some Riedel wine glasses, for Hanukkah. The difference is astonishing, and supports a friend’s comment, upon tasting wine from my old (wedding-gift) glasses, that no one should ever have trusted my response to a wine tasted from them. I poured a nothing-special red wine into a Riedel Vinum Bordeaux glass and a wedding-present glass, and even a non-wine-lover guest was floored by the difference — in aromas, palate complexity, mouthfeel.

There are thousands of people who spend 50 American dollars on over-engineered junk gifts such as the Electric Rabbit Wine Opener, which has no positive effect on one’s wine experience (and cultivates sloth, weakness and stupefaction), when they could buy a two-pack of Riedel glasses. Infuriating, if not surprising.

What emerged from the Riedel glass was another gift: the understanding that vinifying without filtration is the single most crucial cellar behavior in determining the quality of a wine. The “nothing-special red” mentioned above is the Domaine la Bastide “Les Genets” Syrah 2008 VdP, available for around $12 (Wicked). I’ve had enough mediocre Syrah to know that it’s very difficult to find anything under $20 with this wine’s true Syrah character: Californian at first in its ripe burst, but evolves over an hour into fresh asphalt, licorice, drying plums, and smoky bacon. The wild aromas keep coming as it opens up, countered by silken texture and perfectly tuned tannins.

The wine’s importer, Peter Wygandt, emphasizes unfiltered wines because he knows how thoroughly the act of filtering “impurities” from natural wines strips much of their true character. Sometimes filtration is necessary, but it’s often used to anesthetize wines for the hypothetical “market” that supposedly doesn’t want to encounter any sediment. The gift you could offer the wine market is proving that attitude wrong, by asking your wine merchant for unfiltered wines.

Speaking of Syrah, another gift I recently received was the opportunity to be proven wrong about it. California wines generally underwhelm (or overwhelm) me, but the Bruce Neyers Old Lakeville Road Syrah 2006 from Sonoma, California, is $35 (Nappi), worth more and utterly giftable. No, it’s not Hermitage or Cote-Rotie (French home of the greatest Syrahs), but it is true to self and truly terroir-driven. It unwinds, from ripe plums into an almost existential darkness, packed with charcoal and fresh, loamy earth. A slow, harmonious, tender wine, to accompany slow, harmonious, tender food and people.

Thanks, too, to the folks at Vias Imports, who earlier this year conducted a tasting of the 2005 Cru Barbarescos from Produttori del Barbaresco (Pine State). Prices vary according to the cru, but give the Pora or Rabaja to your favorite (patient) wine-lover. Barbaresco is famously slow to mature, and a 5-year-old is preposterously young, but 2005 was so good that for the first time in my life I saw the potential energy contained in the Nebbiolo grape, a balance of minerality, spice and fruit like none other.

Passing time together is a gift. Magisterial importer Neal Rosenthal recently gifted me this explanation for the size of a wine bottle: “It holds too much wine to be drunk alone.” Wine is about sharing, which is the essence of the best things, and all gifts, and all parties. At a recent tasting of Rosenthal’s wines, I found signs of sediment everywhere — a sign that filtration was avoided (Rosenthal insists on this). His Lucien Crochet Sancerre Rouge 2006 $37 (Mariner), is pure Pinot noir heaven, with a glassy, glycerine elegance, fresh red fruit, and how’s-he-do-that mix of lightness and density. It’s lovely now, but when your loved one invites you to uncork it together in 2020, the gift will have arrived in full.

Bobby Kacher: Wines of Heart, Soul, Mind, Hand

November 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

From Portland Press Herald, November 3, 2010

“We don’t always realize our potential,” Bobby Kacher says. “Great terroir has the potential it has, and it’s our job to bring it out. But we’re all born with a certain potential, just like terroir.” It’s a tremendously resonant statement from a tremendously important person in the world of wine, and it signifies the complex interrelationship Kacher sees among place, people and wine.

Kacher imports monumental wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Alsace, Burgundy and elsewhere, but his everyday wines light up my heart because they bear no trace of boredom, mass-production, or afterthought, and there simply are no better wines I know of in the $10-15 range. To buy some Top-40-hit of a $12 wine from your local Vino-Mart when there are Kacher wines to be had is borderline-criminally ignorant.

“I’ve always wanted to be judged on my basic level,” he told me. “In some ways there’s more work there, it’s more interesting, because the microclimates aren’t as rarefied.” His winemakers agree: “When you stand in André Brunel’s cellar,” Kacher said, “and taste his VdP (‘country wine’) Grenache and then his Châteauneuf, you really think, ‘Do I see a $50 difference?’ The great growers are going to make great wine at all levels. It’s in their blood, their skin, their DNA. He was trained to make noble wine, so he’s going to apply what he knows – what he is – to every wine he makes.”

The Brunel Grenache VdP Vaucluse 2008, is $10! A 3-D model of the real Provence, it’s unfiltered, dusty but super restrained. Unlike too much overly jammy, off-kilter modern Grenache, the fruit is so well-integrated and graceful, with an evening-soft finish, violets and lilacs (and Red Twizzlers). It’s $10! It’s $10!

Since the early 1970s, when like fellow independent-minded wine importers Kermit Lynch and Neal Rosenthal he hit the back-roads of France in search of The Real, Kacher has been bringing natural, handmade, character-laden wines to these shores.

The Gournier Merlot is another example of an inexpensive wine showing individuality and presence way beyond its price ($11). This is true-blue Merlot in unfiltered, walnuts-and-cocoa glory, spackled with a little mud. The overly rounded-off quality of modern Merlot that allowed “Sideways” to give it such a bad name is absent here, revealing the pepper, violets and life at the varietal’s core. It’s back-of-the-barn stuff, but graceful still. The 2007 I tasted recently was day-um fresh; the now-available 2009 must be stunning.

Of that wine Kacher told me, “I’ve put the Gournier in decanters after a few years of ageing and served it to friends, with food that has garlic, thyme, rosemary, and it’s amazing how people react…they see all kinds of complexity.”

He often does that at home, since “It matters so much to me that the consumer has a good experience at table when they pour one of my bottles. I often serve a simple Ugni Blanc at home without showing the bottle, and they think it’s a grand Sauvignon blanc.”

Ugni Blanc, the main grape in Armagnac, is most of the Domaine de Pouy 2009. This is just easy, bright, fresh white wine, as sharp as broken glass and that exciting, rippling with ricocheting citrus. With 10.5% alcohol and some pétillance, it’ll gobble up clean, direct foods from oysters to sautéed greens. Ten bucks.

A much weightier, wealthier white is the Becassonne 2009, a white Côtes du Rhône ($15-16) that drives deeper every sip. Deep almonds, almost frangipane, and earthy to the core. For winter fare like mushrooms, beans, smoked things, saffron and cream, this is what you want. Dazzling finish.

One more: Le Clos 2008. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Grenache, it is the perfect everyday balanced red wine, for $12. It’s peppery, rustic, granular, angular, above all human wine. Soft tannins hang out in the back with the plummy fruit, maintaining order. Human: all the action moves analog and integrated, not robotic. For heart-filled foods: lentils, caramelized onions, stew. From the same Domaine, the Corbières 2007 costs an extra dollar and brings a foresty spirit: Let it breathe for 30 minutes or more and the fruit comes together in extraordinary ways, turning in the end to something like roasted beets. It kicks at first, then becomes stately.

All Kacher wines are distributed by SoPo Wine Company. The man himself will visit Portland November 12, hosting a dinner at Havana South.

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